Howling from The Tombs

Howling from The Tombs

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I recently attended a film screening of Howl on a rooftop in New York City's Lower East Side, shivering and alone in a crowd of hundreds. As a fan of the poem, I approached the film adaptation with some ambivalence; and as a fan of the actor James Franco, I worried that his performance would miss the essential splendor of the goofy, unrequited lover that Allen Ginsberg was at the time he penned Howl.

Yet as I settled into my folding chair and the film began, soon reminding me of the power of Ginsberg’s poem, my concerns floated off over the rooftops. I was absorbed, as was the audience.

It was not, however, the first time that I had a transcendent communal experience facilitated by Howl.

Last year around this time, I spent several days inside a New York City jail, otherwise known as Manhattan Central Booking. Located underground and lacking windows, there is no way for occupants to know how much time has passed (unless you start counting sandwiches as soon as you get there, something few have the presence of mind to do). For this reason, it is known unofficially and almost universally as The Tombs. It is a place where the man who took my booking photo furiously and vulgarly demanded that I NOT smile for the picture. It is also where I witnessed six Puerto Rican detainees perform the film Carlito's Way in its entirety.

Though I savored many remarkable experiences during my brief stay at The Tombs, the point of relevance that I mean to share occurred in the hours before arriving there...

Around 4:30 in the morning, I was roused from my slumber and yanked from an uptown A-train at 145th Street by an un-amused police officer. Conveniently, there is a police station located inside the subway station at 145th Street where I could wait out the time until my transfer to The Tombs. Once the officer relieved me of my belt, tie and book of matches, I was led to a holding cell. I can't describe the layout of this room because it was nearly pitch black. I had a cell to myself, though, and I soon realized that there were several identical cells to the left and right of me, many of them occupied by similarly inconvenienced and vocally frustrated men.

All I know of them is what I heard them utter through the darkness, which was a sadly soothing pattern of loud demands, followed by mumbled personal musings:

"YO! COULD I GO TO THE BATHROOM? DAMN! … Man, I gotta go to work tomorrow."

"LEMME GET A PHONE CALL! ... I know my old lady is trippin' right now. "

This went on for hours and there was never a response. Eventually, the bathroom requests were replaced by the sound of urine streams hitting the floor.

As my eyes adjusted, I noticed a small square of light in the distance casting a dull beam, running diagonally across the head of my concrete bench. I generally carry a small paperback with me to read on the train, which I then pulled from my pocket to pass the time. The book I carried with me that night was a copy of Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. As I opened to the first page and started to read, I paused and thought to myself, "This poem is meant to be read aloud!" So I cleared my throat and began.

I'm not sure what prompted my performance, except that it felt like the appropriate thing to do. As I turned the pages, my voice became more confident, more musical, more animated. I didn't mumble through phrases like "pubic beards" or "cock and endless balls". Instead, I sang Ginsberg's lament at the "shocks of hospitals and jails and wars", and his ode to those who "howled on their knees in subways" and "sat in boxes in the darkness."

Though I don't recall my exact thoughts at the time, I must have expected some form of negative feedback from the other men. It was 5 o'clock in the morning of what I would imagine had been, at the very least, a challenging day for them. But they were silent. The requests for phone calls ceased. The mumbling stopped. It took me almost 20 minutes to get through the poem and I wasn't interrupted once.

As I read the final lines, I poked the air with my fingertips and shook the book, yelling. "HOOOOOLY THE SUPERNATURAL! EXTRA BRILLIANT INTELLIGENT KINDNESS OF THE SOOOOUUUL!" Out of breath, I closed the book as a heavy silence settled over our shared space. After a few seconds, the man in the cell next to mine smacked his lips and said, "Man. That's some shit."

I never saw their faces. They were groans in the dark, agonized and dispossessed men with a shared misery, pissing on the floor in a dungeon beneath the capital of the free world. They were the men of Howl, crying out at the same distant, hidden moon.

As I sat with this memory during the Q & A portion of the film screening, a young, pretty brunette stood up with a question for James Franco and the directors. "If Allen Ginsberg were alive today,” she asked, "do you think he would be using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to write poetry?"

I'll spare you the list of crude responses I had prepared for her in my head, because she gave me something to think about:  How vulnerable are we in the self-analyses that we broadcast to the world in 140 characters? What kind of crying, desperate pleas do we choose to express in our status updates? It is as if we have become our own startlingly savvy PR firms, polishing our experiences and feelings into a product for the insular world we've built around ourselves.

These considerations revealed another layer of relevance in the poem: Perhaps the savage honesty of Howl is as rare and shocking now as it was in the age of conformity and repression into which it was released 50 years ago.

Also, you can't tweet from jail.